There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few days about “trigger warnings” because of a piece in The New York Times, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm. The basic idea is that texts might traumatize students who have been subject to abuse, etc., in the past. There are obviously cases where people who have been through difficulties may need to not be exposed to certain material, but many people suggest that this is infantilizing university students. I agree. But trigger is just a new word for something that’s been around a long time. Universities such as Brigham Young or Bob Jones exist to some extent to buffer their charges against a world which might assault them with uncomfortable questions, and reinforce a particular set of values. The right to not be “hurt” in an emotional sense is ancient. Ten years ago Sikhs rioted in England because of the production of a play that offended and hurt their religious sensibilities. In the Islamic world and South Asia there is an explicit public norm that religious feelings should not be offended. “Trigger warnings” as they are currently being envisaged in their broad and expansive sense just resurrect the idea of blaspheming norms.
From The New York Times piece:
“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” For example, it said, while “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe — a novel set in colonial-era Nigeria — is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
The new is always old. Kevin Drum’s mild critique of triggering could be about Christian colleges.